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Director: David Hand
Release Date: November 17, 1934
Stars: Donald Duck, Fifi, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Mickey and Donald (in his third appearance) are policemen hunting Pete who has ‘dognapped’ Minnie’s dog Fifi. The chase, which includes a lot of gunfight, ends in a sawmill where all three have to cope with a runaway circular saw.

The cartoon is outstanding for its fast pace and high content of gags. Mickey and Donald are staged as a duo, but, like in ‘Orphan’s Benefit’, Donald Duck is given the last shot. ‘The Dognapper’ would remain Mickey’s and Donald’s only genuine duo cartoon, but it set the stage for the famous trio outings of the late thirties in which Mickey, Donald and Goofy would fight the odds together. Goofy, the only missing element, would join Mickey and Donald a few months later, in ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ (1935).

Watch ‘The Dognapper’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 70
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey Plays Papa
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Two-Gun Mickey

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Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
March 15, 1929
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
 ★★★★½
Review:

The Barn Dance © Walt DisneyIn ‘The Barn Dance’, Mickey Mouse’s fourth cartoon, Pete’s rivaling Mickey for the love of Minnie.

The first scene of this cartoon draws its inspiration from the Oswald cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘, released only eight months earlier. Pete and Mickey both come to Minnie’s house to court her. Pete has the advantage of having a car above Mickey’s chariot, and like Donna Duck would do nine years later in ‘Don Donald‘ (1937), Minnie (wearing a bra, like she did in ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘) falls for it. Luckily, the car falls apart even before they’ve taken a ride, so Mickey and Minnie ride together to a barn dance hall.

Unfortunately, Mickey can’t dance: his shoes grow bigger every step, stepping on Minnie’s leg all the time. So after the dance Minnie’s leg is a long mess. She then ties it in a knot and cuts off the excess! These two gags belong to a surreal type typical of the silent era, which Disney would soon abandon.

After Mickey’s failure as a dancer, Minnie only wants to dance with Pete. Mickey solves the problem with help from a balloon, but Pete wrecks Mickey’s plan, regaining Minnie and leaving Mickey crying on the floor. This is a rather odd ending of a marvelous cartoon, which is still firmly rooted in the silent era with its surreal gags, limited use of sound and absence of dialogue.

‘The Barn Dance’ is far less known than the three Mickey Mouse cartoons preceding it, but with its clear storytelling, funny gags and strong acting it’s still a delightful cartoon to watch.

Watch ‘The Barn Dance’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 4
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Steamboat Willie
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Opry House

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
August 7, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Gallopin' Gaucho © Walt Disney

Although Mickey’s first cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘, couldn’t arouse any distributor, Disney made another cartoon with his new character, ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’. It was to be Mickey’s second and last silent cartoon.

If possible, he is even ruder in this short than in ‘Plane Crazy’: according to a poster in the background, he is a sought-after criminal, we watch him smoking and drinking, and dancing a stout tango with Minnie (who’s wearing a bra in this cartoon).

Nevertheless, this cartoon is also the first in which Mickey shows to be a small, but clever and courageous hero. For when Minnie is abducted by Pete (who, in his first appearance in a Mickey Mouse cartoon, has both his legs), Mickey rescues her in a heroic fight. He then earns the kiss he tried to get by force in ‘Plane Crazy’. It was of course this character trait which was greatly expanded upon in later Mickey Mouse cartoons. Mickey’s nemesis, Pete, was in fact a much older character than Mickey – he already figured in some of the Alice cartoons and he was also Oswald’s adversary. His design was initially more dog- or bearlike, but in the Mickey Mouse cartoons it was settled that Pete was some kind of big cat.

Due to the melodrama ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ contains less gags than ‘Plane Crazy’, but it’s still a wonderful and fast cartoon with ingenious gags like the scene in which Mickey uses his own tail as a tackle. ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ also set out a storyline that was to be copied a couple of times (e.g. ‘The Cactus Kid‘ (1930), ‘Mickey in Arabia‘ (1932),’ The Klondike Kid‘ (1932)), and self-consciously parodied in ‘Gallopin’ Romance’, the film shown in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier’ (1933). ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ itself was a parody of the 1927 Douglas Fairbanks film ‘The Gaucho’.

This cartoon was de facto the first production of Disney’s new fledgling studio (‘Plane Crazy’ was made secretly when Disney was still under Mintz’s contract). Ub Iwerks, who had animated ‘Plane Crazy’ single-handedly, could now be assisted by the young assistant animators Les Clark and the recently hired Wilfred Jackson to work on ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’. Both men would have long lasting careers at the Disney studio.

Unfortunately, ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ didn’t stir the distributors any more than did ‘Plane Crazy’. Disney had to come with something original, if he would get Mickey on the screen. And with something original he came…

A few final trivial remarks

  1. Mickey has shoes in this cartoon, which he shortly looses while whistling his ostrich in one scene.
  2. Mickey’s eyes change from the goggly to the familiar ones during the same scene.
  3. The bird Mickey’s riding might very well be a Rhea, a relative of the ostrich, that lives on the pampas of Argentina, the place where the cartoon takes place.

Watch ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 2
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Plane Crazy
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Steamboat Willie

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
November 18, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Steamboat Willie © Walt Disney

In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.

Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.

And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.

Using sound creatively

Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.

‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.

However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.

The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’

Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.

Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).

Conclusion

Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.

When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.

Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 3
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance

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